Clear The Air News Tobacco Blog Rotating Header Image

Big Tobacco Accused of ‘Dirty War’ Against Smoking Prevention in Africa

In the past, Big Tobacco has been accused of covering up the true extent of the health risks associated with smoking, as well as fighting government restrictions. Now, a new investigation suggests that Big Tobacco is using strong-arm tactics to resist regulations in many parts of Africa.

The Guardian reports that after reviewing court documents and other materials, it has uncovered a systematic wave of bullying and intimidation by British American Tobacco. And BAT is soon to close a deal that would make it the world’s leading tobacco company.

The exposé highlights attempts made by BAT to defang, or resist outright, regulation and restriction. For example, the company used threats of economic damage to fight higher taxes on cigarettes, a plan that is standard in the U.S. and much of Europe.

The Guardian reports:

In one undisclosed court document in Kenya, seen by the Guardian, BAT’s lawyers demand the country’s high court “quash in its entirety” a package of anti-smoking regulations and rails against what it calls a “capricious” tax plan. The case is now before the supreme court after BAT Kenya lost in the high court and the appeal court. A ruling is expected as early as next month.

The Guardian has also seen letters, including three by BAT, sent to the governments of Uganda, Namibia, Togo, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso revealing the intimidatory tactics that tobacco companies are using, accusing governments of breaching their own laws and international trade agreements and warning of damage to the economy.

But we have seen these tactics before.

Starting as early as the 1970s, health warnings about cigarettes began to grab national attention. At that time, tobacco companies used every advertising and legal mechanism they could to prevent further regulation and to avoid plain packaging. As a result, some 70 years after the health dangers of cigarettes came to light, we are only now restricting tobacco in a way that seems appropriate to its risks.

While tobacco companies are in retreat in the West, African, Latin American and now Asian markets have become key areas of interest. As well as exploiting labor in these regions, tobacco companies now want to ensure that their products last long after the West has rejected cigarettes.

For its part, British American Tobacco has always claimed to abide by strict codes of conduct. The company has defended its use of the courts as a means to clear up ambiguous interpretations in local regulation and to ensure international regulations are being followed where appropriate.

British American Tobacco maintains that it does not oppose regulation per se and believes that reasonable restrictions on tobacco are warranted as, tobacco is a harmful product.

However, campaigners have long said that BAT falls short of that standard. Many African nations have signed on to the World Health Organization’s treaty on tobacco control, but that status still needs to be ratified, meaning that no uniform policies exist. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular has shown its vulnerability to manipulation by outside businesses with money.

The Guardian exposé highlights this clearly in one extract regarding tobacco regulation in Kenya:

Extract – letter
“If these measures are brought into effect, the economic and social impact will be extremely negative. They could even threaten the continuation of our factory which has operated in Bobo Dioulasso for more than fifty years with more than 210 salaried employees.”

Excerpt from letter from Imperial Tobacco to the prime minister of Burkina Faso, 25 January 2016, concerning new regulations on plain cigarette packaging and large graphic health warnings.

The Sunday Times has previously reported on an investigation which found that BAT sold cheaper, highly addictive cigarettes to Africans in the 1990s. The company also allegedly marketed smoking without sufficient health warnings.

BAT may dispute such claims or suggest that these are simply past infractions. However, more recent reports claim that people affiliated with BAT have attempted to bribe African officials to advance tobacco products in sub-Saharan Africa and to avoid certain regulations.

As of 2016, these allegations — made both by former BAT employees and by outside investigators — even prompted lawmakers in the U.S. Congress to call for a full investigation to determine whether BAT breached any laws due to its involvement in Africa.

Overall, tobacco use remains low across Africa. A major “Lancet” study published in 2010 puts cigarette smokers at about 14 percent of the total population — far below that seen in the Americas. However, data suggests that the rate of smoking uptake is rising at an alarming rate — by as much as four percent per year.

Will the Guardian’s revelations prompt further action against British American Tobacco? That remains to be seen, but we must do everything we can to help African nations get the full facts on tobacco’s health impacts and resist Big Tobacco’s strong-arm tactics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>